Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas Books!

I'm at least partially responsible for keeping the Strand Bookstore in business this year. I took three strolls around the joint and took care of most of my holiday shopping. Some of the more meaningful gifts I unearthed turned out to be the thriftiest, plucked right out of Lady Luck's hands from the outdoor dollar racks. This cold weather we've had has kept some great titles lingering on those shelves!

Here, a list of books received, and given.
The Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick. Maybe I'm the last person on earth to read this, as the book jacket wears a "#1 New York Times' Bestseller List" flag at the top. Just finished it after a middle of the night sprint, and enjoyed it. Turn of the last-century mystery. Page turner.

Marie Antoinette, by Antonia Fraser. I've ducked into the author's prelude, and already appreciate Ms. Fraser's studied examination of a biographer's role.... in this case, she makes every effort to create this historical epic tale without offering allusions throughout to our heroine's terrible ending. Oh, and she didn't say "Let Them Eat Cake", after all!

By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham. Looking forward to this; I've only heard amazing things about Mr. Cunningham. I've not read The Hours, so will be moving backwards through his catalog if this goes over. The Hours, in particular, always sounded like it would be a dark read, but that didn't stop me from loving Tess of the D'Urbervilles or for that matter, Anna K.

Room, by Emma Donaghue. I've been dying to read this, and it's next up on my list. I don't know very much about it, but think it might freak me out since the protagonist is a five year old boy who, I understand, is raised in a closet. Still, the reviews are amazing, and this was one of those "Hey, Jim, I bought this book and you can give it to me for Christmas" titles.

The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong. Novel set in Paris, in the 1930s! Given by my brother and sister in law avec Salt, the cookbook (cute theme, no?).

Books I Gave:

Uncle Steve: Just Kids, by Patti Smith. Beautiful and poetic. I've wanted to underline sentence after sentence. Also, The Book of Imaginary Beings, an encyclopedia style book about various creatures that appear in Middle Eastern mysticism, by Jorge Luis Borges. Steve knows more about mysticism than anyone I've ever met, and I was excited to discover this.

Daniel, age 14. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, and other stories, Roald Dahl. Daniel is frighteningly smart and sarcastic. Hello, Mr. Dahl Junior.

Claire, 16. Breakfast at Tiffany's. Oops, gave my 16 year old niece a book about a prostitute. Oh well. At least it wasn't about a grisly murder, ahem, In Cold Blood.

Davis, age, 11. A Game of Thrones, by George Martin. Some adorable nerd working the bag check in the comic shop Forbidden Planet told me this would be an excellent choice for a brilliant little guy who probably finished the entire Harry Potter series when he was like 8. It's being turned into the next saucy HBO series, to boot. Again, perhaps I overreached with the age, but people used to do that with me and I turned out alright.

Scott, age 19. Dreamland, by Kevin Smith. Historical fiction about old Coney Island. Scott's going to school across the river at Seton Hall, studying International Relations. I hoped a book centered in the five boroughs would be an incentive for him to come on over and explore more often.

Rebecca, age 20. Are You Somebody? Accidental Memoir by a Dubliner. by Nuala O'Faolain. One of the most beautiful coming of age autobiographies I've ever read. Rebecca goes to school at St. Andrew's in Scotland. She's already soaked up much of Europe in her two years over there, so I thought she would enjoy a beautiful life story to fill in some of the holes that more touristy travel tends to reveal.

Matt, age 19: The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, by Tom Wolfe . Car culture essays published in Esquire in the 1960s! Matt's going to college in the middle of Pennsylvania in the small city, Altuna. He's a big hearted, rap-listening, hard-working kind of dude who likes to have a good time, and I thought he would enjoy reading some of the first "Laddie" lit.

Nick, age 14: What is the What? The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, by Dave Eggers. Nick is already a competing rock climber on the international circuit. I thought he would enjoy Mr. Eggers' fictional memoir of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. I've not read it yet, but have it sitting in one of my many piles.

Elizabeth, age 16: The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists they Inspired, by Francine Prose. Elizabeth is such a lovely girl. She can be quiet, but there's something stirring about her, and I suspect behind the scenes she's inspired her own share of burgeoning teenage boys.

Jim, my sweetie: new copy of Patricia Wells' Simply French cookbook-- one that isn't being held together by rubberbands. Also, the new Mark Twain autobiography (a real door-stopper, at that). A sweet Bird Encyclopedia that he already likes to read before falling asleep (one of the beautiful disconnects about him that I love; his rural reading in his urban environment-- when we first met, he had a pamphlet about raising chickens that he used to read, and I thought "this is the guy for me", despite the fact that I've not ever raised chickens). The Food of a Younger Land, by Mark Kurlansky. A look at how food was studied and catalogued by the Works Progress Administration- I'm looking forward to borrowing this one.

My mom: An American Wife, by Curt Sittenfeld. This, to me, looked like a guilty pleasure that's only thinly veiled fictional account about Laura Bush and her conflicted White House years. Puritans, volume 2, to inspire a beautiful work in progress.... Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. Anything about circus folks intrigues me; throw them back a few plus decades and I'm hooked. A hard-worn biography of Elizabeth the Great that looked interesting.

Mother in law: The Museum of Innocence, by Nobel-Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. This epic love story set in the Middle East looked like something she could really tuck into over a long winter.

Jamie: Jungle Book popup book; Cricket at Times Square, Sea Monsters...

It seems that I got carried away, but I'm a careful shopper and did pretty well at the Strand. In the past, when the kids were younger, I got them toys or cute clothing, but from now on I think I'm going to follow in the footsteps of those people who loved me and supported my reading and writing when I was growing up.

Did you buy books this season?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Yes, Jamie, There is a Santa Claus

Today, Lisa Belkin was kind enough to indulge me again on her New York Times Motherlode blog. This time, I wrote an essay about Santa Claus, and about how every year a certificate comes in the mail that puts Jamie "on the top of Santa's list". I expected to receive the "Way to set your kid up for the real world!" comments; I have to say, I wasn't expecting quite so many. Read it below, and feel free to add your own two cents....

It’s Silly, but I Believe

Yesterday we questioned Santa. Today we defend him.

Sort of.

In the first of two guest posts today from parents who want their children to believe, Rachel Aydt wonders how long the magic should continue, and whether there’s such a thing as believing too deeply.


Four years ago I stumbled into a way to have Santa Claus send my now 7-year-old son Jamie a personalized letter, hand-stamped from the North Pole. Every year it’s delivered in a parchment-colored envelope addressed to him in an ornate font, and has a vintage picture of Santa swirling about on the background as if it were magic itself. Details dropped into the letter always an added layer of mystery: Santa always seems to know whether we will be waking up on Christmas morning in Kinderhook, N.Y., Philadelphia or even Florida, certainly a more challenging spot for a reindeer and sleigh to visit than the northern East Coast. He also knows which friends, pets or cousins will be around. “Be sure to tell Max…Spunky… Davis and Isabel… that if I don’t get a chance to write to them, I’ll drop by their house as well.” The letter arrives after Thanksgiving, and around that time he perks up about me checking the mail in the lobby of our apartment building when his school bus rolls home at 3 p.m.

That first year I discovered that you could also send an official “Good List Certificate” which arrives in a separate, larger envelope. The 8 1/2 by 11 heavy stock document is pretty swank with its shiny gold and crawling holly-berry borders and Jamie’s name swirled around in calligraphy. The thing is even hand signed by “Alfonso Elfonso, Chief Elf.” Suffice it to say that four years have gone by, and Jamie has managed to remain “at the top of Santa’s List” each successive year.

I’ve tried to teach Jamie not to brag about this incredible knack he has for making it to the top of Santa’s list. Last year, my lesson didn’t take, and subsequently a teacher told him that the list goes sideways, which means many kids are on the top. He came home quite flummoxed about this clear mistake, and with some new reassurances the matter was closed.

Another year has come and gone. Last week, as he was jumping up and down for joy after checking the mail, he was climbing the four flights of stairs to our apartment when I heard him say breathlessly: “Out of six billion people on Earth, I made it to the top of the list again! Mommy, how did I do it?” After being hit with the concern that I’d taken it too far and there was no going back, I considered his question as if it were etched truth. There was the bad chemistry he had with another boy in his classroom earlier in the school year that led to some parent and teacher contact, and he worked hard to overcome his entanglements with a boy whose bravado could be attributed to coming to a new school after his own parochial school had been shut down.

“Well, you give people second chances,” I said, and explained how proud I am of how he and the boy are friendly again.

“And you work really hard on your homework even when you don’t want to.” I was on a roll.

“And I gave a poor person my allowance in Paris,” he continued.

Yes, I thought, you did drop a Euro in a hat while we were in that outdoor market. This back-and-forth commentary went on for a bit, and by the time we reached our fifth floor landing, he was well convinced that there had been no mistake; he had done it again. There were other things I didn’t think I needed to go into at the moment that for me put him at the top of the list, mainly that he’s thriving in his first year in a full-inclusion classroom setting after being in a self-contained special-ed classroom since he was 3.

Yesterday, Jamie came home from school and said, “I’m worried about my best friend [they're all his 'best friend' these days] M. because he doesn’t believe in a lot of things.”

“Really, like what?”

“He doesn’t believe in Santa.” My heart sank. This is the year, I hear, that many kids have their bubble burst.

“That’s so sad, Jamie. Maybe Santa doesn’t come to his house.” The moment that left my lips, I regretted saying it.

“But M is a good boy! What happens when Santa doesn’t come to your house?”

I thought about this again, as if it were truth etched in stone, and thought of the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” letter. I didn’t have an answer for him that could sound as certain as I would have liked, because he’s right, M. is an amazing child, and Santa should come to his house. So I said something along the lines of, “I think you have to believe in Santa for him to come.” Maybe we’ll take Jamie to the giant, red, quite official looking “Believe” mailbox at Macy’s, which I believe is located somewhere near the overzealous perfume sprayers. Suspicion looms now, but the spell hasn’t been broken, and I have a few tools left in the woodshed to scrap together another year or two.

“Mom, can people get on top of the good list when they’re 30? Or 35?”

“I think that might be a record, Jamie.”

“Do I have the record now?”

“Sure, why not?”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Voluntary Simplicity

Roughly ten years ago, Jim and I became interested in a growing movement called Voluntary Simplicity. The motivation began as financial. The group was inspired by a book I'd admired, Your Money Or Your Life, a keeper that I go back to from time to time when I need a boost of frugality. At weekly meetings, an interesting cross-section of people sat in a circle in a host's apartment speaking about what cool free things they did that week (hiking; kayaking; ushering at a theater and seeing the play). The main idea of the group was to support each other in the "enough is enough" philosophy. For some, that meant getting out of debt; for others, saving money for a downpayment for an apartment; for others, it was about finding a group of new like-minded friends to picnic with in Central Park-- potlucks, naturally. The philosophical questions circled around how to pare down one's existence so that one could spend more time pursuing their interests rather than spend all waking hours working in some hated job to pay off bills for piles of crap that no one even needed. "Piles of crap" is of course a relative term: my crap entailed those two non-negotiables, rent and food. Eventually we slipped away from these meetings, feeling that the leader's politics rather than the original idea for the group had taken over the bulk of the tone, but something about the driving philosophy has lingered over the years.

This is the time of the year when we're all reaching for our wallets to shop for people we love. We shop to show appreciation, to fulfill some desire in others and ourselves. And yet, the theme I hear buzzing all around me this December, both among family and friends, is that once again, Less is More. People are choosing to live within their means (despite what TV news shows would leave you to believe), and shopping seems to be more calculated and thoughtful; much less impulsive and extravagant. Gifts are less about impressive sweeping gestures that leave credit card hangovers long after January comes and goes, and more about, well, the person behind the gift.

In one of my favorite sappy Christmas movies, The Homecoming (the pilot of the Walton's), John Boy's mother, played by Patricia Neal, presents her budding writer son with a couple of Big Chief tablets and pencils so he can get to work writing his books. The euphoric pleasure she takes in a blooming Christmas cactus in her basement fills up her whole home with joy.

I have the Big Chief tablets on the brain this year, and have bought loved ones mostly books. This year we're spending Christmas in Philadelphia, and being together with Jim's mom and siblings will be a tonic to the loss we still feel in Jim's sister passing away six months ago. This upcoming weekend, we'll spend an early Christmas in Kinderhook with my family by the lake. My mom's asked me to bake, which I'm happy to do, in the spirit of offering a simple pleasure, like the Christmas cactus bloom. What do the holidays mean for you this time around?